There’s a reason that former Randolph-Clay star Dexter Ellington could only manage a small smile as he held Texas Southern’s regular-season conference title trophy two weeks ago: The Tigers, despite winning the SWAC, could not compete in their conference tourney because of multiple NCAA violations by a former coach — and thus had no shot at making the Big Dance. As a result, Ellington’s stellar career at Southern came to a bittersweet end, but it ended with a title. (Dexter Ellington/Special to The Herald)
HOUSTON — There’s frustration and there’s utter frustration — and then there’s what Dexter Ellington went through this year.
Ellington, a former Herald Super 6er, had a long journey from Randolph-Clay, where he was a star for the Red Devils, then he landed at Texas Southern, where he was hoping to have a huge senior season.
A combination of some bad luck and a bad ankle made this an almost unbearable season for Ellington, a starting point guard who saw his frustration hit a high point last week when the NCAA Tournament began without him.
“I’m sitting here watching Gonzaga play Southern and I still can’t believe it,’’ Ellington said last Thursday as March Madness began. “We beat Southern (in our conference). We could have been there. We could be playing right now.’’
Texas Southern never had a chance.
The Tigers were on probation because of violations committed by their former coach and were ineligible for postseason play. And to make things worse, Texas Southern not only won the SWAC regular season title by going 16-2 in the conference, but they ended the season as one of the hottest teams any where.
The Tigers won their last 12 games, and they would have had a ton of momentum going into the postseason.
“It’s really hard watching the game, knowing we should have been there,’’ Ellington said while he watched Gonzaga beat Southern last week. “We can play against anybody.’’
It was a difficult season for Ellington personally. He had high hopes of finishing his college career on the highest of notes, and was averaging 9.5 points a game when he suffered a high ankle sprain. He played sparingly down the stretch, averaging just three points a game.
“It hurt me so much. It really hurt me not to be out there,’’ said Ellington, who was a part of Randolph-Clay’s last state title team in 2004-05 as a freshman. “I’m the type of player who wants to be on the court. But I stayed with my teammates. I tried to be a leader and help them, trying to make sure the guys were doing the right thing.’’
It was supposed to be Ellington’s year.
He graduated from Randolph-Clay in 2008 and spent a year at Chipola College in Florida and then a year at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas before moving on to Division I Texas Southern as a junior. He started as a junior and was looking forward to his senior season. Then the ankle injury came and the season ended on a bittersweet note after the Tigers had so much success but had to sit out the Big Dance.
“When I look back on it, it’s hard to describe this season,’’ Ellington said. ‘It was a tough year. The main thing was not to quit on yourself. I never did. It was tough. It still bothers me. I was hoping my team would do well, and I was hoping I would have a big season.’’
Ellington said everything changed at Texas Southern when Mike Davis took over as the coach this year. Davis had coached at UAB for the previous six years, and he was the head coach at national powerhouse Indiana from 2000 through 2006. He came with a sterling resumé and a new outlook for the program.
“Knowing we were on probation kind of messed up our minds when the season started,’’ Ellington said. “We knew we couldn’t get in the tournament and we knew we had a special team and we had a big-time coach coming in this year. We were excited and had put in a lot of hard work.
“All the hard work you go through, that’s what you play for — to go to the tournament. Once you’re in the tournament anything can happen.’’
Ellington feels as if Texas Southern (17-14 overall, 16-2 in conference) could have been this year’s Cinderella team.
“Coach Davis came in and changed everything,’’ he said. “He’s an offensive genius. Everybody started clicking. The fact we couldn’t go to the tournament stayed with us all year, but we played hard and left everything on the court.’’
Ellington said he stayed positive through the worst of times.
“It was just so much. I stayed positive and kept praying and tried to look at the big picture,’’ Ellington said.
The big picture is working out pretty well for Ellington, who is scheduled to graduate May 11 with a degree in physical education. He still follows the program at Randolph-Clay and one day hopes to come back and coach.
“I keep up with Randolph-Clay, and I have been back to talk to the team,’’ he said. “I put in a lot of hard work in the classroom and after I graduate I want to coach basketball.’’
He feels he grew a lot this year — a season he will never forget.
“The Lord puts you in situations to teach you so much and to go through so much to stay strong,’’ he said. “You learn to stay strong and work hard and fight through it and try not to look at the negatives It teaches you so much about yourself.’’